Watching — and thinking about — history in Denver

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

History. Symbolism. There was plenty of both in Denver. A number of contrasting moments stand out in my mind about my experience at the recent Democratic National Convention.

Most poignant was the climax of Barack Obama’s speech on Thursday night. He had finished his list of Republican wrongs and what he was going to do right. He moved into his flourish, with his ever-so-slight allusion to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 45 years earlier: “America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise — that American promise — and, in the words of scripture, hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.” At that moment I felt proud to have marched and organized with Obama for 18 months and proud of him for his fearless pursuit of the impossible. 

Later, on reflection, I was perplexed by the convention’s avoidance of the question of race. Little time was spent discussing how astounding it was that in a country built on slavery, a country where, when I was a child, Southern governors blocked black students from entering state-run universities, a country where in 1975 parents threw rocks at the buses full of black children in Roxbury, Mass., a black man won the Democratic Party nomination for president. Although the media celebrated that fact, the convention didn’t. There was far more emphasis on Hillary’s “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” and the slogan “equal pay for equal work” and on paying tribute to the Clintons.

The second-most poignant moment was the motion by Hillary Clinton to have Obama nominated by acclamation, after a small, but significant, number of delegates cast votes for her during the roll call. Shelly Silver, hardly a harbinger of change, led off the moment, and then Hillary made her motion, which was the best thing she did at the convention. But then those around her, led by Silver, began to chant “Hil-la-ry, Hil-la-ry” instead of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma.” I only hope they got it after Barack’s speech. 

Every morning, the New York delegation, plus guests, had a breakfast with lots of speeches, followed by an hour of waiting on line to get “credentials” allowing us access to the afternoon’s events. The best speech was the last, on Thursday, when Governor David Paterson addressed everyone. For the first time in the four days of meetings, the governor broke through on the question of race. He spoke about how, in a state that prides itself on its liberality, we have a long way to go with the acceptance of black candidates by white voters. He spoke about how his father gave up his state Senate seat in 1970 to run for lieutenant governor with Arthur Goldberg, and became the first black candidate ever for statewide office. But once the campaign was underway, it was all about Goldberg; Basil Paterson’s name was never mentioned (except by opponents, who predicted that “black militants” would kill Goldberg to elevate Paterson to the governorship). He spoke about how far this country still needs to travel on the road to racial equality and how that issue should not be subsumed in the effort to appease Hillary’s supporters. 

The convention often missed that point. Barack Obama’s candidacy is about nothing if it not his capacity to represent a shining moment, not just in American politics but in the history of America itself. There is no greater fact in the Obama candidacy than, should he succeed, a country that began in the terrible self-contradiction of slavery for blacks while proclaiming the equality of “all men” will have awarded its ultimate office to an African-American. The symbolism of the Obama candidacy is the major source of its great power.

The symbolism did not have to be trumpeted by Obama himself nor should it be. Symbols do their own communicating. That is why 80,000 people showed up (after having fought for tickets), to hear a speech from a politician. We all know that we were there to see a special moment in history unfold. Thank goodness, the convention ended on the note it did, with Barack heading back to that magic moment of 45 years ago in front of the Lincoln Memorial. At that moment, his campaign and the entire convention shimmered back to the unique and commanding magic that we saw in Iowa this past January. 

It was fitting that the last New York delegate to arrive in Denver was Lower East Side Obama delegate Paul Newell, the upstart, grassroots activist who took on Sheldon Silver in last week’s primary. He showed up, New York Times endorsement in hand, and left with the power of knowing that sometimes the impossible comes true. 

Schwartz is the male Democratic state committee-member for Greenwich Village, Soho and Tribeca, and represented the Eighth Congressional District as an elected delegate to the Democratic National Convention.